Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group / On dialect....                   



Various names have been proposed for the speech of the industrial North East: 'Geordie', 'Pitmatic', 'Durham English', 'Tyneside English'... But it is not easy to categorise the speech of a community that crosses political and geographical boundaries and whose speakers were drawn from generations of migrants - now sadly leaving the area as regularly as once they came in.

In the past, there has been little encouragement to study the speech of industrial areas, to the extent that Tyneside English has been declared 'unNorthumbrian'. Yet the industrial speech of the North-East preserves as wide a range of Old English and Old Norse based words as any area, and indeed acted as a powerful countermeasure to the spread of 'conventional English' in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result of the domination of heavy industries like ship-building and coal-mining this particular speech has become one of the most important and popular regional variants of English.

All Northern English seems a truer echo of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) than Southern English - especially in its vowel sounds. It retains a higher proportion of Norse-based words than Southern English, but shares with it an admixture of words derived from Norman-French in the feudal era. Like every other dialect, the speech of the North East has interreacted with 'conventional English', with increasing convergence in recent centuries. Dialect has seemed to loss consistently in this process, so that it is easy to forget that 'conventional English' first emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries as a compromise between features of Northern and Southern speech. Indeed, much of the simplicity of modern English grammar came about in the North, in the Middle Ages, winning gradual acceptance throughout the nation.

Whether we like it or not, spoken language is subject to continual change. Written language is more stable, but the speech of the North East is at a disadvantage here, having never developed a consistent system of spelling. The lack of fixedness is, in another sense, an advantage. In its free, imaginative and often humorous use of words, North-East dialect in particular seems to retain a creative energy that balances the static form of 'proper' English; its extra inputs from Scots and Dutch in the early 19th century give it uniqueness among English dialects and the keen vitality of urban life helped it develop an unusual flexibility and expressiveness; its vowels and intonation retain a singing quality, welcome to the ear, in admirable contrast to the raucous twang of the capital. Though visitors from the South still tend to think of North-East dialect as something 'foreign', it is worth remembering that only 5% of the UK population are reckoned to speak 'standard' English, and trends to consistency are continually countered by new 'slang' and local inventiveness.

The status of a dialect/language depends not only on the numbers and energy of its speakers, but on the achievements of its literature. While the North-East cannot claim anything to match the poetry of Old Welsh or the enduring monuments of Classic Scots, yet its work in short prose, poetry and song certainly rank highly among the dialects of England. A little slower to publish than Yorkshire or Lancashire, North-East writing and printing in dialect found its true voice in the democratic (radical) surge of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, creating a literary momentum that has never quite been lost. Besides considerable poets like Thomas Wilson and Alexander Barrass - both represented on this website - there are the song writers like Joe Wilson, Tommy Armstrong, Ned Corvan, Willie Purvis, and the humorous monologues of William Egglestone and John Stobbs. Much of this initiative was folkic and oral, and a considerable amount of 20th material remains to be collected if possible - tragically some of the songs of the early 20th century writer Albie Gibbons are already lost. A revival of interest in dialect in the 1970s was brought about on Tyneside by the humorous writings of Scott Dobson, which coupled with the publications of Frank Graham and the founding of Beamish Musem, evidence a renewed dialect and regional energy that continue to contribute meaningfully to the emergence of a new identity for the area, after the loss of its traditional industries.

Like it or not, language is a managed area. The gradual loss of dialect is not so much a natural process as a deliberate policy. Yet language is an essential factor in the community and the future of the community, where tradition and spontaneity also count. What better time to reconsider and take stock of dialect and what it can offer...

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